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Ruth Rendell - Tigerlily's Orchids
on 9 August 2010
I've a blind devotion to Ruth Rendell. That said, she hasn't written a novel I've absolutely loved under her Rendell name for around ten years, since Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. She's come close since then (Thirteen Steps Down, for example), but several of her recent novels have been - while very good - slightly lacking in something... tension, bite, tautness, whatever, I'm not sure. Tigerlily's Orchids is NOT the kind of stunning work of fiction she has produced in the past, but it's certainly on a par with Thirteen Steps Down.
I really can't put my finger on what it is that makes some of the recent novels of less than her normal excellence. They're a bit looser, there's not so much tension, so much sense of impending doom. They're not so intense. Yes, I think that's it. They're not so intense or claustrophobic. Also, I don't think her characters are quite as believable as they once were... lately she has taken on a tendency to exaggerate people's character traits to elaborate their personality, which makes them seem a little ridiculous (Claudia is a prime example here), and it takes away from one of the great strengths of her work: the shocking believability of the people involved in the latent horrors of day to day life. Also, and I am loathe to admit it, but she writes with a very old fashioned eye. She's always at pains to point out when something is "as it is said/done nowadays"; that's an exemplar of the attitude that keeps peeking through. Almost everyone seems as if they would be more at home at least a decade, if not more, ago.
That all said, she's still my favourite crime-writer. Her novels are still unique, as are her outlook and attitude. She is exceptional at conjuring strange plots and situations. She knits plots brilliantly. Her people are - generally - compelling. The greatest strength of Tigerlily's Orchids is actually the elderly alcoholic Olwen - who'll break your heart. One of Rendell's most powerful traits used to be the fact that her writing held no hint of judgement as to the people she would write about, and it's that coldness that's slipped away a bit - you often know what Rendell thinks of her characters nowadays (she dislikes Sophie, she dislikes Claudia, she dislikes Stuart but has a soft spot for him generally, she likes Marius, she finds Richenda amusing), but I can't fathom what she thinks of Olwen. And that's why hers is the most powerful character, and why the characters in Rendell's older books were often so very powerful. She withheld from judging them, not out of compassion but out of coldness. But now she doesn't.
Anyway, to the point. Tigerlily's Orchids, and Rendell's recent work generally, is flawed. Though it is less flawed than this review implies! This recent book is enjoyable, mysterious, has a couple of surprises (nice to see a proper twist back in Rendell's work!), some great set-pieces (Stuart's party), and some moments of great tension. She remains a fantastic, original crime-writer, and among her later work this is one of the stronger efforts. A wonderful bag of people are here for your delectation - meet them!